Parroting speech, like aping action, is no one’s idea of a noble achievement. And like apes, parrots have long been pressed into the service of racist metaphor—or so Sergio Vega suggested in the exhibition “Parrot Theory,” where he also examined their complicated roles as figures of myth, metaphysics and scientific study.
At the center of this ambitious, engaging show was a big green chalkboard outlining a rather unsystematic history of the bird’s symbolic representations, the category headings an odd assortment of subjects: Mallarmé, glossolalia, Hegel, colonialism, color and, inevitably, Dr. [Irene] Pepperberg, whose work with an African gray parrot named Alex produced an avalanche of interest in the animal’s remarkable language skills. Next to the chalkboard was a video of a 2009 lecture/performance presented in New York in which Vega, a paper beak covering his nose, expands on these headings, commenting on the stereotypical exoticism of parrots; their usefulness in considering concepts of mirroring and de-realization developed by Borges, Lacan and Baudrillard; and their natural Dadaism, as evident in their chance-driven language games. (The text of the lecture also appears in a handsome book that accompanied the exhibition.)
An abundance of supporting visual material both original and recycled, mostly from 2008 or ’09, included a variety of drawings; a souvenir-size reproduction of the Victory of Samothrace, her wings colored in shades of parrot-green; a kitschy Tiffany-esque lamp in the shape of a parrot; and a surprisingly literate (and very funny) 1963 ad for a ruby-red Ford Thunderbird. The vivid inkjet prints in the series “Parrot Color Chart” each feature a bird framed by blocks of bright color: greatly enlarged sample pixels from the photograph on which the print is based.
In the gallery’s last room was a second video, this one shot in Brazil, whose voiceover quotes the Bible to cast parrots as “the quintessential witnesses of Paradise,” which (as Vega has explored in his ongoing project “Paradise in the New World,” of which “Parrot Theory” is a part) was said by some early European colonialists to have been located in South America. During the period of conquest, Vega notes, it was believed that in the Garden of Eden, all animals could talk, speaking the natural, universal language of Adam and of God.
In the New York lecture, Vega also observes, “What interests me about parrots is not just how much they are like us, but how much we are like them,” not only in our urge to mimesis, but in “How much we talk, even when we have nothing to say!” While not exactly commendable, these traits “do seem to reflect the conditions of our fragmented self.” We have not been fair, Vega concludes, to this “wounded inner parrot.” Maybe, then, one thing we can learn from the birds is how to take a joke. Or, that repeating empty phrases is one way to expose their vacuity.
Photo: Sergio Vega: Parrot Color Chart #6, 2008, inkjet print on paper, 43 by 30 inches; at Karsten Greve.